Our theme for the month of March is “Ask the post calvin.” We’re taking on questions submitted by readers and offering our best advice.
Dear the post calvin,
My prayer has always seemed dry and not heartfelt. I’ve tried different methods, but I feel like I’m just doing a fancy journal or meditating, and not communicating with my God and father. I don’t know if this comes from an improper attitude around prayer, a lack of commitment and effort on my part, or is something normal I should learn to live with.
Dear Depressed Devotee,
At the end of your letter you popped off three potential criticisms of yourself: that you have an improper attitude, a lack of commitment, and a lack of enthusiasm to live with your current reality. I know prayer was the topic, and I really want to avoid psychoanalyzing from afar, but prayer is a space of vulnerability. What we utter there, no matter who we are or what brought us to our knees, is usually pretty honest, whether or not one believes God is actually listening. So, when alone in prayer, if what you find is dry and not heartfelt, improper and lacking, then I’m not sure the problem here is prayer. The problem is your self-talk. *Crosses legs* Now, tell me about your fee-
Whoops. Sorry. Not psychoanalyzing. It’s just that Christians tend to be so focused on their unworthiness at such ill-suited times. Protestants may be opposed to physical self-flagellation, but verbally we tend to heap it on. We’re all so human and so broken and so undeserving. In some circles, you’d think the only reason we need God is because we’re depraved. Well, God is also beautiful and good. And, as John Calvin says in the first chapter of his Institutes, “no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves.’” So in our brokenness, beauty and goodness also reside. TL;DR: Dwell on what is good in you, and you’ll find God there too. I think it’s just important to remember that we believe because it’s a good thing to do.
So your prayer isn’t working. You’ve tried the journals. You’ve tried the meditating. Something still feels wrong. I’m going to hazard a guess and say that the something wrong is that God is not responding to your prayers, verbally or otherwise. There’s that impenetrable silence to deal with. Without any recognition that we’re being heard, our prayers can feel futile, like a door slammed in one’s face, to steal a phrase from Lewis. If God was responding back to you conversationally—assuming that such an event wouldn’t give you a substantial heart attack—“dry” and “not heartfelt” would probably not be your descriptors.
It’s a very natural expectation to have that a loving God would instill in us, somehow, a sense that we are being heard. I take that back—it’s a strange expectation that feels natural. I say “strange” because it assumes things about God that don’t match up with the realities of our lives; I say that it feels natural only because many of us grew up hearing talk about prayer as if it were a knowable conversation. It’s a conversation, sure, but not knowable in the least. Here’s what I mean: if God is in everything, then a drive to work is as holy as a prayer. God is just as present in both of those things as they (God) are in everything. This is a great mystery.
If this sounds anti-mystical or something, I assure you, it’s not. Life strikes me as mystical right now, this very moment. We are alive. We are expressing extremely complex thoughts about the nature of existence. The origins of these thoughts originated, presumably, in a great explosion of matter about 13.7 billion years ago. Matter gathered, became animated, grew, interacted with itself, speculated and observed itself, and now we are here, you and I, trying to figure out how to communicate with the origin of the universe itself. God. That’s what prayer is. Which is also to say that I can see why the fancy journal didn’t work.
Anyways, let’s bring this back to self-talk, because that’s also what prayer is, right?
I understand prayer to be the expression of our souls’ deeply held desires, which are always present, and therefore, I believe, always listened to. Thus, our self-talk—the way that we communicate with ourselves everyday—is our strongest message to God, because it speaks itself into our every action, and God, being the substance of the universe and everything, is there for it all. Your thoughts, your conversations, your cells, your atoms. It can all be a prayer, if you choose. Your life. Reflect on your presence here, and offer it into this vast, divine landscape. And, I guess, trust that the sustainer of all things is manifest in every part.
I’ll end by giving you my favorite prayer, but it requires some preamble. Bear with me.
The ancients believed that to see even a glimpse of God’s face would result in death. I used to be bothered by this, finding it a cruel punishment for a very understandable desire. Why would God hide like this? At the time, my image of God was very anthropomorphic, which meant that seeing his face entailed looking upon a visage with a mouth, nose, eyes, and so on. As if, strolling into the tabernacle where God was housed, one might accidentally see his holy schnozz peeking through a curtain and be struck dead. This was an unfortunate kind of literalism, really, and it stuck with me long enough to do a great amount of damage towards my understanding of divinity. But, as you can probably tell given the above fluff, this understanding transformed into something else.
So what would we see if we looked into God’s face? A humanoid one? Well, a human face is much more than the bits and pieces that make it up; the fact that we can give each other “meaningful eye contact” implies a thoughtful intention beyond the abilities of the face itself. There is a mind behind the face, and the meaning is derived from there. Given this, what great meaning shapes the features of God’s face? I imagine that to see it would be akin to seeing that which created every detail of our universe—the substance of substance itself, if you get my meaning. The deep and abiding love that formed us.
So, the LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make their face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
Will Montei is currently in pursuit of a Masters in Teaching at Seattle Pacific University. He has been writing for the post calvin since it began in 2013.